Miller: Winning Season, More Success on Road Doable for Cougar Hoops

WSU's best-ever recruiting class has Kyle Smith ahead of schedule in Pullman

Posted on November 9, 2020

Dane Miller
  By Dane Miller, SportsPac12

The December Pac-12 men’s basketball schedule is out and the Conference pairings for the rest of the season have been set. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be previewing the 2020 season for all 12 teams. We continue with the Washington State Cougars.

2020 Recruiting Class: 4th in Pac-12 (33rd Nationally)

Andrej Jakimovski, 4-Star, Forward
Carlos Rosario, 4-Star, Forward
Dishon Jackson, 3-Star, Center
TJ Bamba, 3-Star, Guard
Efe Abogidi, 3-Star Center
Jefferson Koulibaly, 3-Star, Guard

Transfers

None

Key Returners

Isaac Bonton

Key Departures

CJ Elleby
Jeff Pollard

Big Picture: Kyle Smith has Already Made Remarkable Progress

Kyle Smith | Ethan Miller/Getty Images via kiro7.com

Kyle Smith is way ahead of schedule in Pullman.

Like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, the second-year coach secured the program’s best recruiting class in history after a 16-16 opening season on the Palouse. With six recruits, the class ranks fourth in the Conference of Champions and 33rd nationally.

Jakimovski

Led by Andrej Jakimovski, a four-star forward out of North Macedonia that projects to be among the best freshmen in the Pac-12, the Cougar class is capable of measuring up with the Conference teams considered to be in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Smith’s class is balanced, too, adding both size in the paint and scoring threats on the perimeter. At guard, TJ Bamba has a strong chance of starting, and Jefferson Koulibaly should see decent playing time. While at forward, four-star Carlos Rosario could end up seeing the floor early and often.


Bonton

With the potential to start three freshmen, the return of Isaac Bonton is a game changer. The senior guard is the clear leader of the team, and he should run the offense with efficiency. When it comes down to it, Bonton’s poise and consistency may be the difference between another .500 season and a potential postseason berth.

Reasonable Expectations: Winning Season, Defeat Ranked Opponent at Home

A winning season is not only a reasonable expectation, it is the expectation.

Anything less would arguably be a regression and halt the momentum. CJ Elleby drove much of the team’s success last year, but Bonton was his close No. 2, and the Cougs appear to have more rounded roster in 2020-21.

Another victory over a ranked Conference opponent at Beasley Coliseum is probably expected by Smith as well, and his “Smart Ball” system is more than capable of getting it done.

Times have changed on the plains of Eastern Washington.

The expectations are real.

Achievable Goal: Win on the Road, Keep Recruiting Well

Good teams find ways to win on the road.

An improvement on Smith’s 2-9 record away from Beasley is obtainable and realistic. If Washington State basketball is to shake it’s reputation as a lower-tier Pac-12 program this season, it must get it done outside of Pullman.

Bamba

To do so, Bonton may need to score more than 15 points per game and be among the scoring leaders in the Conference. The emergence of a second threat to score on the perimeter is vital as well, and either Bamba or Koulibaly are the most likely candidates.

WSU’s inside presence should be better than average, too, with both Jakimovski and Rosario able to score down low and in the mid-range.

Rodman

The X-Factor, though, could develop from consistent play out of some combination of DJ Rodman, Tony Miller, and freshman Dishon Jackson. It will be up to Smith to coach up his young team and get them to immediately buy in to the system.

Should he develop their trust early in the season, more than a few teams could find themselves suffering defeats at the hands of Washington State.

Outside of the actual games, Smith will have at least two roster spots to fill heading into 2021-22. Like most good recruiters, you can expect a transfer or two to leave the program in order to open up some additional scholarships. Maintaining a Top 6 class among the Pac-12 is once again within reach, and it’s not a stretch to aim for a Top 100 prospect.

Best Case: Mid-Conference Finish, Trip to NIT

With one of the younger teams in the Pac-12, but led by a senior guard, the Cougars finish .500 in the Conference race to wind up as an eight-seed or better heading into Las Vegas. In a repeat of 2020, Smith leads the team to another victory in the opening round at T-Mobile Arena, giving his program an outside chance at an at-large invitation to the Big Dance.

Though WSU stumbles against one of the Top 4 seeds in the Second Round, it does receive an invitation to the NIT.

Importantly, Washington State improves its 5-4 conference mark at home, and starts to put ranked Pac-12 opponents on notice of what to expect in Beasley moving forward.

And in a sign of strength, Smith lands a Top 100 prospect, setting the table for even higher expectations in 2021-22.

— Previous 2020-21 Basketball Previews —

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